A Practical Guide to Staying Emotionally Sane for Startup Founders

A Practical Guide to Staying Emotionally Sane for Startup Founders

By Lucas Lu. Published on
Jan 2, 2017

This article is based on my own experiences and conversations with other founders. It isn't meant to be a self-help article to get your adrenaline going. Tough conversations are a part of every startup's journey. What I want to do here is to share some practical tips that you can use to weather through those tough times.

I also wrote this because I wish I had a guide like this before my own startup journey.

First off, you should give yourself a big pat on the back for deciding to work on a startup. Entrepreneurship is something you learn best by doing it. Not something you learn in school. You have been thinking about an idea that you feel like you have every reason to succeed and that you can't fail. On top of that, the media portraits the startup land as an arena where heroes and warriors are made. Everyday on Techcrunch or Mashable you read about articles featuring multimillion acquisitions. It's easy to think entrepreneurship is full of victories and happiness under such circumstance.

I have no doubt that you will give your 110% when things are going in the right direction. And you will rally others around you to go as hard as they can. What I care about is what you will do during tough times. How will you handle the situation? And how will you rebound from the trough and get back on the right track.

Tip #1: Be Mindful of Your Emotions

In the first one or two years of a startup, 80% of your energy will be spent on feeling lost or arguing with others on the team. Most of this energy will be exhausted on dealing with negative emotions. Negative emotions drain you more energy than positive energy makes you feel happy. As a general rule of thumb, you need five positive emotions to offset every one negative one. I know it is impossible to quantify emotions. To make things simple, keep in mind that every great interactions you have with others on the team is going to help you in the long run. Cultivating those positive emotions so you will have enough "savings" in the bank when you need them the most.

You may be asking yourself: "Shouldn't I just avoid negative emotions completely? So my emotion savings in the bank will always be in a surplus?" No, you can't and you shouldn't. Negative emotions are inevitable in every startup. John Gottman, a world renowned psychologist and marriage counsellor, once commented: "People in successful marriages fight as much as those in a bad relationship." The key is how you handle those tough situations. We will talk more about how to fight smart later in this article.

Tip #2: Build Mutual Purpose

Your team will be in the trenches for a long time before your startup reaches product market fit or profitability. One of the most powerful chemistry that will band your team together is a shared purpose. A vision, that you all agree on and are working towards. Having a shared purpose is also a great way to make sure everybody on this journey is here for the right reasons.

Before a team can have a mutual purpose, each individual member must know what they want. I recommend each member writes out, in isolation, a list of things that she wants from the startup. After that, the group will collect everyone's response and build common grounds together.

A purpose can be business related or team building in general. Here are some examples:

  • I want to help cure cancer (if you're working on a cancer research idea)
  • I want to work with smart, talented people
  • I want to build a profitable business
  • I want to work in a place where everyone is kind to one another

A sense of shared, mutual purpose is the single most reliable ingredient that will propel your team to the right path. Spend time working on it.

Tip #3: Be a Keeper of the Purpose

Once your team has developed a mutual purpose, you're setting your startup up as a purpose driven organism. Remember the old saying "the reward is in the journey"? That needs to be modified slightly. What you should be doing is always maintain a laser focus on the end goal of what you're trying to achieve. And try to get there by any means necessary. If you do fail, you should have enough humility to learn from the experience.

Get into the habit of always coming up with a common goal for everything you do in the startup. If you're testing out a new marketing channel, develop a common goal that everyone involved agrees upon. It will guide you through tough discussions as you start the experiment.

Tip #4: Focus on Learning

No matter how smart you are, chances are you know as much as your co-founders and your guesses are as good as theirs. In a startup environment, nobody knows anything until they've tested it. What happens often is that founders will get into heated arguments over why each of their idea is better than others'. One would say why users will use his feature and another founder will build cases around why his idea works better. The truth is nobody has any data to back up their argument. The more they argue the more they get into the deep end of negative emotions.

Now switch your thinking into building a culture of learning and testing. Everybody should have the humility to recognize that there's so much more for them to learn and things they thought they knew could turn out to be false. Get your team to buy into this principle and you can start building a culture that values testing and learning above all else. If your team came up with two marketing ideas, you should try both ideas and let them rumble. I'll talk more about fast and cheap prototyping tactics in a separate article.

If the next time you hear an idea and the first reaction is to disagree, say the following words in your head: "I believe there are lots of ideas that are better or complementary to mine. And I commit to hearing them. Before I agree or disagree, I should seek to understand it from the other person and find ways to build a shared idea by taking the best parts from each individual one."

Tip #5: Focus on Facts, not Stories

The state of our emotions is a response to external events that happen to or near us. The other person or event never makes you mad, you make you mad. You can either choose to have your emotions act on your or you can act on your emotions. When an event affects our life, our first reaction is always to tell ourselves a "story". It is our interpreted version of what happened. Based on the stories we tell ourselves, we create emotions as a response that make us feel mad, angry or happy. The danger of this thinking is that you don't necessary know if your story is accurate. And the more emotions you use to justify your story the more accurate the story seems in your head.

Instead of telling yourself a story, focus on the facts. Here's how it works. For example, you and your co-founder agree to have you read over important sales emails before she sends them out. You both agree that sales is very important and you hope to learn from those emails by having a second pair of eyes. After a while, you find out that there were a few times where your co-founder didn't have you read over her emails. So you decided to bring this up with her. Now, you have two options. You can either open the discussion with: "Why didn't you share those emails? I thought we had an agreement." That is a one way ticket to a guaranteed heated discussion. You should avoid it at all costs.

The other option requires you to think before you talk:

  1. Make sure you know the facts - your colleague didn't share with you sales emails in the last little while. No blaming. No victim stories. Only facts.
  2. Think to yourself that you're as much an actor in this incident as your colleague. Were there times that you could have reminded her to share emails with you? What else could you have done to prevent this incident?
  3. Think to yourself why would such a kind, descent human being do something like this? Thinking in this way helps keep your humility in check and wanting to hear the other person's story

Focusing on the facts might seem like a small detail, but it will serve you well in many situations.

Tip #6: Give Effective Feedback

We drag our feet when giving others feedback, because we tend to associate it with criticism. On the flip side, giving feedback is very necessary for launching a successful product. Instead of avoiding it, you should learn how to give effective feedback.

Based on our previous example, you've done the thinking and you're ready to have a conversation with your colleague. Instead of opening with "Why didn't you share those emails with me?", do the following:

  1. Set collaborative intentions - what do you want from this email strategy? Start by saying: "I'm glad that we were able to agree on having me read over important sales emails before they got sent out. I know we both want to make sure we give each customer the best support and learn from those early sales experiences."
  2. Ask for permission - "There's something on my mind about the emails - can I talk to you about it?"
  3. Describe the facts - "I noticed that there were a few times that I didn't get a chance to review the sales emails before they went out."
  4. Share how the facts made you feel - "This made me a bit anxious without knowing what those emails looked like." Describe how you feel can be tricky. Choose words that describe how you feel without making your colleague feel blamed. Words that describe your inner state work the best. For example "anxious", "mad", "disappointed", "overwhelmed"
  5. Start collaborative problem-solving. So far you've done a great job to create a safe space for your colleague to speak her mind. Maybe the reason she hasn't shared the email with you is because they needed to go out immediately, and that you happened to be busy at those moment

Tip #7: Take Time-Outs

If you and other members do find yourselves in a heated debate, take a time-out and come back to it later. Have you ever felt more confused, sad and anxious after a meeting than the beginning? We've all been there. These conversations are extremely energy draining and ineffective. To prevent that, learn to watch for signs before the conversation becomes too emotional. Maybe you start to frown. Or your shoulders start to tense up. Or maybe your face is getting hotter. When that happens, remember to suggest to pause the conversation to take a breather. You can say: "I know we both want to resolve this issue. But I don't feel like we're going somewhere after one hour of non-stop talking. I'd like to take some time off from this. Let's regroup tomorrow morning if that's ok with you?"

You might not immediately know or remember what signs to watch out for. The next time you find yourself tense up during a conversation, take a mental note of that state and use it as a reference for future incidents.I hope you find those tips useful and remember to never ignore your emotions. Face them and you will be able to handle any situation that your startup will put you in.

I hope you find those tips useful and remember to never ignore your emotions. Face them and you will be able to handle any situation that your startup will put you in.